Sports Medicine Nurse: An Advanced Practice Role

Nurse practitioner taping ankle of patient in orthopedic clinic.

Sports medicine is a sub-specialty of orthopedic medicine, largely involving injuries or traumas suffered as a result of training for or competing in an athletic event. Physicians in this field are primarily family medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons (with many having completed a sports medicine fellowship) treat athletes and physically active people for acute and chronic injuries that cause various degrees of immobility.

Intro: What’s a Sports Medicine Nurse?

Sports medicine nurses are typically nurse practitioners (NP’s) that help physicians care for patients experiencing various musculoskeletal injures, including muscle strains, joint sprains, torn ligaments, bone fractures, and dislocations. Though not a “formal” or traditional specialty for nurses, sports medicine is a field that’s open mainly to advanced practice nurses with experience or a strong desire to work with an orthopedic surgery team.

Patients can range from recreational youth players to professional athletes. It’s the job of the sports medicine nurse to take a patient’s history, assist the doctor with his or her treatment plan, and educate the patient on how to avoid future injuries.

Work Settings and Job Duties

Sports medicine nurses usually are found working in orthopedic practices and clinics. Some also work at first aid stations during various sporting events. They often function as part of a team with physicians, physician assistants and physical therapists.

In a private practice setting, a sports medicine nurse usually works 40 hours per week or less, typically Monday through Friday, during regular business hours. These nurses may prepare patients for physician examination by taking health histories, performing screenings and diagnostics, and answering any questions the patient might have. Duties can be as routine as taking blood pressure readings and interviewing patients about how they received their injuries and as crucial as assisting surgeries and monitoring patients in the OR.

For example, here’s a scenario: After the orthopedic doctor consults with the patient, the nurse may review everything the doctor told the patient, such as the diagnosis, the plan for treatment, and what he or she is supposed to do at home. This may also include providing samples of medication and explaining the side effects or if needed giving an injection or taking an x-ray. During the actual surgical procedure the nurse may also assist the orthopedic physician – in some aspects similar to how a physician assistant would.

One advantage to this type of job is the hours, which are much more predictable than hospital work. The job is varied; sports medicine nurses work with different age groups and can incorporate much of the general knowledge learned from their formal nursing education, in addition to training received from a physician. One downside is that most of the patients are in a hurry to get well. They’re anxious to get back to their sports, and they want to get back now, which means you must be firm in advising them against rushing the healing process.

Salary

The NP profession was listed as having a mean salary of $95,000 in 2013, however in the sports medicine or ortho setting this figure may be higher. Average salary for orthopedic NP’s was approximately $102,000 in 2014 based on Indeed.com’s data.

Education and Training

Due to the competition and limited demand for nurses in the sports medicine field, an advanced nursing degree, such as a Master’s in Nurse Practitioning is usually required. Experience as an orthopedic nurse practitioner would help further. Some physicians are more open to working with nurse practitioners or other types of APRN’s and train them specifically for a particular role. It’s more common now to see APRN’s working with orthopedic surgeons.


There is an Orthopedic Nursing Certification (ONC) offered by the Orthopedic Nurses Certification Board, which allows nurses interested in getting into orthopedics/sports medicine the opportunity to show their commitment and knowledge of the field. Certifications are available to both RN’s and nurse practitioners. According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, around 2% of NP’s work in orthopedics and sports medicine.

According to Director of Duke University’s MSN program and orthopedic specialist, Michael Zychowicz, DNP, on how he got into orthopedics:

Like many Nurse Practitioners, who are practicing in orthopedics, we really just learned from on-the-job training. A lot of asking questions and a lot of reading.

This growing interest of nurse practice in this field has led to the development of formalized education/training like Duke’s MSN with Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Specialty Concentration degree program. Duke offers a post-Masters certificate as well.

Advice on becoming a Sports Medicine or Orthopedic Nurse

As mentioned above, you’ll most likely need to get an MSN degree w/ Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist specialty. Depending on the particular MSN graduate program, a bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) degree may be required specifically for entry.

If you do not wish to pursue a BSN, then a bachelor’s in athletic training, exercise physiology or kinesiology would provide a solid undergraduate education for going into an MSN program. If you already hold a non-nursing bachelor’s, there are non-traditional MSN programs available for non-BSN graduates.

After you become licensed as an RN, try to get experience with orthopedic physicians either by approaching their practice directly or via job boards such as Indeed.com. Also, don’t be afraid to make the most of the connections you have around you, such as your professors, to get your foot into an orthopedic or sports medicine setting!


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